By Jenny Neyman
Politically, Mel Krogseng, of Soldotna, and Blake Johnson, of North Kenai, have little in common. One’s a Democrat, one’s a Republican. One was excited to hear Gov. Sarah Palin was named as John McCain’s vice presidential running mate, the other questions her readiness to fill the role. One was in St. Paul, Minn., recently, while the other was in Denver.
They do share one commonality, though — both take the adage of “if you don’t vote, don’t complain” a step further and participate in elections not only at the ballot box, but during the process to decide whose name makes it on the ballot in the first place.
Johnson served as an Alaska delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Denver from Aug. 25 through Aug. 28, and Krogseng was a delegate at the Republican National Convention from Sept. 1 to 4.
Johnson, a Kenai Peninsula resident since 1978, has been active in the Democratic Party in Alaska for over 17 years.
“I think it’s just important. I’ve been seeing where the state’s been going for a long time. I was born and raised up here, it is home to me and I want to see the state do well, and the country,” Johnson said.
After retiring from being president of the Laborers’ Local 341 Union out of Anchorage a few years ago, he found himself with more time to devote to the election process. Turns out that was a good thing, when he got a surprise nod as a delegate to the national convention. Johnson had been the regional vice chair of the Democratic Party for the Kenai Peninsula and was picked as the second vice chair statewide this year. When the party chair, Ray Metcalfe, decided to run for office this election season, that moved the first vice chair position up to chair, and Johnson up to first vice chair.
The chair and vice chair are sent to the national convention, which maintains a 50-50 men-to-women ratio. In all, 18 delegates and four alternates attended from Alaska.
“As Democrats we accept everybody — male, female, gay, straight, black, green and blue, so as a white male it would be a lot more difficult to be selected as a delegate,” Johnson said.
“It was a great event, a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for myself. But there’s just too many people,” he said.
Along with the 5,500 delegates were 17,000 members of the media, Johnson said. He’s been to big events before, but the media plus the security involved, especially at moments like when he was standing 25 feet from Hillary Clinton when she finalized Barack Obama’s nomination for president, was somewhat overwhelming.
“It was interesting, and there were a lot of people. That was the biggest thing that drove me nuts,” he said.
Johnson mostly tried to avoid the media, especially when Alaskans became popular interview targets once Gov. Palin was announced as McCain’s running mate. But he does have an opinion on the nomination.
“It goes to the inexperience of national issues,” he said. “She’s got some experience managing people and she’s done an OK job for the state, but it scares me she could be the commander in chief, the head of the free world, the most powerful person in the world almost. Especially as you hear more about what’s been going on in her administration.”
Johnson was one of four superdelegates from Alaska, meaning they could cast their votes for whomever they wished. Johnson voted for Obama, in part because he wanted to be representative of the majority of Democrat voters in Alaska, and as a result of the research he did while at the convention.
“It was really interesting to get to talk to some people and have some true conversations with people,” Johnson said. “… Hillary called me a couple times, too, but I didn’t have my phone on. My wife always gives me a hard time for leaving the phone off.”
He’s comfortable with his party’s choice in Obama and hopes to see him elected president.
“We’re just ready for some different people there,” he said. “What scares me the most of what’s going on in the world is our national debt. It’s scary what we’re saddling out kids with, and grandkids. It’s just a difficult situation any president is going into at this point.
“In general he’s looking at the issues that need to be gotten after and there’s no easy answer. The other side of the coin is there’s no doubt McCain and Palin are Republicans. Just because you’re president doesn’t mean you can change things overnight. In my opinion, this country can’t stand another four years of the economics they’re going to do.”
Krogseng begs to differ. She was as surprised as anyone when she heard Palin had been chosen as McCain’s running mate, but she supports both fully.
“A fellow said to me during a recess, we walked out and he said, ‘Well, what do you think about the news from Alaska?’ I thought, ‘My goodness, what happened? Did we have an earthquake?’”
In a sense, yes. It was a jolt to hear Gov. Palin had been chosen as the vice presidential nominee, especially when the press deluged the Alaska delegation with requests for comments.
“We had no clue, absolutely not a clue,” about the nomination before it was announced, Krogseng said. “It was all very exciting and everybody was just delighted. It certainly did put Alaska on the map and gave us an opportunity to tell people about our state and its resources and what it has to offer to the nation and how we feel about drilling in the Arctic.”
Krogseng said she thinks Palin is qualified to be vice president. Even though she only has two years as governor under her belt, the governor of Alaska has much more executive power than governors in other states, she said.
“Here in Alaska the governor has tremendous executive power and authority, and therefore she does have a lot of essentially command experience. I do indeed think she’s a very bright fresh face on the national scene,” Krogseng said.
The 2008 convention in Minnesota was Krogseng’s second. She also attended the 2004 convention in New York. Her husband, Bob, also went as an alternate.
The Krogsengs have lived on the central peninsula permanently since 1990. Mel Krogseng has been involved in the Republican Party in the state for more than 30 years, including running for office, running campaigns, working for legislators and working for the state administration under Gov. Walter Hickel.
“It’s an honor,” to be a delegate, she said. “I just think that it’s my civic duty to become involved, to try to understand as best I can the positions that the various candidates hold on issues, then make a decision to who I’m going to support based on their positions on the issues and the positions that I feel most closely aligned with. That’s basically how I think we all make our decisions on who we’re going to support.”
Alaska delegates to the Republican National Convention are specifically selected for the task. Krogseng also was appointed to the Credentials Committee, which met before the main convention to settle any questioned delegate nominations. Delegates also took a break during the convention to pack 80,000 bags of personal hygiene items to be sent to victims of Hurricane Gustav, which was about to slam into the Gulf region of the United States.
Krogseng was committed to casting her ballot for McCain, as were most of the other 29 Alaska delegates. In the primary, Mitt Romney got the most votes in the Republican race in Alaska, but he and Mike Huckabee officially conceded to McCain after he won the nationwide nomination. Ron Paul was the only Republican candidate who got votes in Alaska to not concede, so five of the votes from Alaska delegates went to Paul, in proportion to the amount of votes he got here.
“You don’t agree with every issue, you try to look at the big picture and see who is best suited for the job overall and understand you’re not going to agree with everything,” Krogseng said. “For the most part I’m comfortable that John McCain and Sarah Palin are working together. They will lead our country in the direction it needs to go.”
Whichever director is chosen at the polls Nov. 7, both Johnson and Krogseng can cast their votes knowing they’ve done their part to make the process work.
“Personally, we believe it’s every citizen’s I guess obligation and responsibility to participate, and we feel that if you don’t participate to some degree in the process, then you don’t have any right to complain about it,” Krogseng said.